Farewell from Fair Isle

Malachy Tallack's last blog from Britain's remotest place reflects on a very different way of living

When I began writing these short pieces for the New Statesman a year ago, I was reacting in part to what I felt were misrepresentations and misunderstandings of life in the Northern Isles that were appearing with some regularity in the national media.

The islands, and Fair Isle in particular, were portrayed as somehow old fashioned – relics of an era long since forgotten elsewhere. The people who lived here were too often caricatured as naïve and idealistic, backward-looking, or, worse, as mere museum pieces, existing solely for the entertainment of our visitors.

I wanted to write an alternative story; one that did not treat island life as an eccentric curiosity, or as a polar opposite to the ‘normal life’ that is lived elsewhere. I wanted to write about the realities of living here – the problems as well as the pleasures – and to do this without adding too much of a romantic sheen. I also wanted to ask myself what exactly it is that makes places like Fair Isle different, and specifically what it is about this particular community that visitors and islanders find so refreshing and worthwhile. On this last point I am quite sure that I have not succeeded, but I wanted to offer here a few final thoughts.

There is a common misconception about Fair Isle’s community, which I think is perpetuated by the tendency to consider it as being a cohesive unit, rather than a nebulous group of individuals. Fair Isle is not a community that is sustained by any kind of heady idealism, or by a desire for ‘like-minded’ communal living. It is a community of individuals, often with very different opinions and ideas, who simply choose to consider their neighbours’ interests as well as their own.

We do this, I think, for two reasons, both of which involve a recognition of something that can elsewhere remain hidden. Firstly, there is the recognition that each person has some sort of role, no matter how ill-defined, within the community. Many of us have jobs that are needed for the maintenance of essential services; others may simply offer a different way of looking at things. But each of us relies, quite literally, upon a network of other people, sharing this island with us. While this fact remains true wherever you live, it is often difficult to see.

The second reason is that people here recognise that the community, as a social group, is itself worth sustaining – that there is something here to sustain. Most people feel no need to define that something, just to acknowledge it. It is related, I would suggest, to an entirely natural and instinctive desire to be part of a functioning social group. After all, that is how human beings, as social animals, have evolved. But it is a feeling that is increasingly hard to find in other places today.

The community works so long as most people, most of the time, are able to remember and accept that their own interests are not always consistent with those of their neighbours, and that everyone benefits by acting with this in mind. This seems to me to be an entirely healthy and natural social order, and one that is completely alien to the hierarchical structures of power and wealth that now binds society together throughout most of the West. It is this naturalness that I think visitors notice when they come here, even for a short time; the feeling that, somehow, this is how it is meant to be.

Anyone who travels in the remote parts of Scotland, and particularly in the Western and Northern Isles, will have come across the evidence of abandonment. Old crofts and cottages lie derelict, ruined. Whole villages and islands that once were populated are now entirely empty of people. It can be a depressing sight. This island could very easily have gone the same way. But it did not.

For me, Fair Isle is a place of great hope. People here work hard to maintain something that they truly believe in, something that they cannot find anywhere else. What they find on this island is a real community of individuals, a natural and native order of things, and a satisfaction that springs not so much from a way of life, but a way of living.

Many thanks to Dave Wheeler for all his wonderful photographs.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.